Future Prosecutor Brings Urgent Drive and Open Mind to Manhattan D.A.’s Office
Adam Younger, a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, is the kind of person who sleeps in gym clothes so he has no excuse not to hit the gym in the morning. His bedroom wall is plastered with motivational quotes, and he has long drawn wisdom from a poem his father taught him, Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata.”
Ehrmann speaks of the “changing fortunes of time” and a world that’s full of heroes, if you look hard enough. The poem has helped the native New Yorker weather the complexities of life, from bearing witness to a classmate losing a relative in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, to watching his father plead guilty to a crime and, later, discovering his own sexual orientation at 25. Younger takes neither people nor circumstances at face value — there is always more to come, more to consider and more to learn.
“My parents and my family have been through so much, so I learned very early to just keep going forward,” Younger said. “You have to be stronger than your excuses.”
That September morning in 2001 is mostly a blur, but the feelings it spurred would lead him to the dream job he will start in September, when he joins the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as an assistant D.A. under Alvin Bragg.
Younger recalls huddling with classmates on a floormat in his fourth-grade classroom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when the planes hit the towers minutes apart. He remembers knowing his classmate had a relative stuck in Cantor Fitzgerald, somewhere above the 99th floor. Later, he was struck by the bravery and altruism of the hundreds of first responders who rushed into the remaining tower after the first had collapsed.
“I remember wanting to be like them — wanting to protect innocent people from harm. I also wanted to hold the wrongdoers accountable,” he said. That desire for justice felt visceral and righteous. The lines were black and white, particularly for a 9-year-old who was taught to be highly empathic.
But 15 years later, the lines became less clear. As he was pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and interning at the U.S. State Department, a separate event shook his foundational belief that justice is righteous and unerring. It started with a call from his father, David Younger, a neurologist Adam described as “totally devoted to treating his sick patients and raising his sons to be honorable, upright citizens,” including by arranging for Adam to volunteer in an emergency room in high school.
“Suddenly my dad was being prosecuted for, and pleaded guilty to, tax evasion,” Younger said.
Dr. Younger was eventually sentenced to four months in a Bronx halfway house by Senior District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a distinguished jurist who, in a twist of fate, would later teach Adam in a UVA Law course on the use of scientific evidence and become one of his mentors.
His father’s legal odyssey convinced Younger that he wanted to pursue justice as a prosecutor and that he wanted to learn how to get the right result through fair and just means.
In between graduating from NYU and starting law school, he interned on the U.S. State Department’s anti-corruption team, at the Manhattan Office of the Appellate Defender and in the conviction integrity bureau of the Suffolk County, New York, District Attorney’s Office.
Younger said he feels he “won the lottery” with the professors he has had at the Law School. Rakoff’s class would become one of his three favorite short courses, which are often taught by practicing lawyers or judges. In addition to Rakoff, Younger learned about the special counsel function from the team that investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he learned about riots and the law from Tim Heaphy ’91 (who led the U.S. House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 inquiry) and Judge Lisa Lorish ’08 of the Virginia Court of Appeals.
While in law school, he’s continued to explore the boundaries of justice and ethics, writing an independent study paper under Professor Richard Re that examines whether prosecutors’ offers of leniency in exchange for guilty pleas are unconstitutional conditions.
“I wanted to examine whether wrongfully accused people can actually choose to plead not guilty and contest the government’s charges at trial in today’s legal system,” Younger said. (Re, who called Younger a “dogged researcher,” said his work shows both “passion and creativity.”)
Rakoff, who didn’t know his path had crossed with the Youngers’ until just days ago, said he was pleased that Adam chose to stay in touch with him after the course and continued discussing his developing opinions of legal doctrine. “In my view, he developed a very sophisticated view of the law that promises to make him an exceptional lawyer,” Rakoff said.
Of the many lines of “Desiderata” that stuck with Younger throughout his time at UVA, there is this: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others.”
Heaphy, a former federal prosecutor, noticed that Younger is open to differing opinions. “It’s important for law students to be able to share perspectives about difficult issues and hear each other respectfully,” Heaphy said. “The ability to listen and engage constructively will serve him well at the D.A.’s office and beyond.”
Younger said he actively seeks out relationships and information that challenge his existing habits and opinions and joined the school’s Innocence Project to better understand both sides of the justice system. “I wanted to learn about the causes of wrongful conviction to know when I should and should not try to defend my convictions,” he said.
Although he’s not particularly gregarious, Younger “examines people,” unafraid to ask unfiltered questions that aren’t always comfortable. Through that, he’s grown close to a local resident whose daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend and another who told him the love of her life was wrongfully convicted of a crime.
“Their stories reminded me why I want to be a prosecutor: I want to do justice for victims and their families, as well as suspects, defendants and the public,” he said.
And by interrogating himself, he realized he was gay — but it is also only one small part of his identity.
“People aren’t monolithic,” he said. “You can’t draw many conclusions from someone’s [outward] identity. You can draw some, but don’t make assumptions before getting to know people; you ask people what they stand for, what they believe in.”
He’s built a small group of close friends and “accountability buddies,” most of whom will be working in New York City law firms. Last year, that was the path Younger thought he would take, as he spent the summer at Covington & Burling, where he worked mostly under Alan Vinegrad, a hard-nosed former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York who “expected perfection on the first go-round,” as Younger put it.
“Alan was one of the most intense people I’ve ever worked for, along with a special college professor, Laura Tartakoff of Case Western Reserve University,” Younger said. “That’s when it clicked for me that this is what being a competent lawyer is about — meticulously scrutinizing the details. I think we owe that to our clients.”
Vinegrad became another mentor to Younger, and Covington extended him a (lucrative) formal offer to join the firm as an associate. “It was really hard to turn that down and to tell Alan that,” Younger said. “But he understood.”
Younger graduates from UVA Law on May 21. With confidence that, as Ehrmann wrote, the universe is unfolding exactly as it should, it’s now time for Younger and his fellow graduates to do one more thing urged in the poem he lives by: “Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.
Media ContactMelissa Castro Wyatt